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Marta Becket Of Amargosa Opera House Fame, Dies At 92

Marta Beckett at her home at Death Valley Junction, NV.
Sadie Mellerio
Marta Beckett at her home at Death Valley Junction, NV.

The Amargosa Opera House - about 100 miles west of Las Vegas -  has been a respite for visitors since 1968. It’s a strange oasis, at the gateway to Death Valley.

The Opera House was founded by dancer Marta Becket who - we were sad to learn the other day– has died at the age of 92.

Freelance writer Dave Clark wrote an article about the opera house early last year for Desert Companion magazine.  Dave joins us on KNPR's State of Nevada to talk about Marta. 

On how Becket ended up at the Amargosa Opera House:

It was pure happenstance. She had a very successful career in New York… but as ballerina’s get older, it’s kind of harder for them to get well paying gigs even in their late 30s, early 40s. She just happened to be on a national tour and they were camping in Death Valley to save money. And low and behold, they got a flat tire – her and her husband – and the closest place happened to be Death Valley Junction.

While her car was being fixed, she didn’t have anything else to do and she started wandering around, exploring and she peeped into the [Pacific Borax Mining Company] former auditorium hall… there was a stage in there, which caught her eye. She decided right there and then she wanted to fix up that stage and start doing performances out in the middle of nowhere.

Why this stage?

Like a lot of creative people, they want that chance for pure freedom, to chase their creative muse. And instead of relying on schlepping all over the country, she was going to put on her own shows, the way she wanted to do it and when she wanted to do it.  

On fixing up the opera house:

She fixed up the whole thing herself. One of the most incredible things you will ever see, you walk in there and the walls and the ceilings are just covered in these Renaissance figures. There are also some Native American figures in there to place it in the local region. There were times where she scheduled performances and nobody was in the audience. She made sure she was performing to somebody, every time.

It took her years to create this. It is just spectacular. You have to go see it.

On her performances:

She created these ballet performances that lasted an hour or two. These were mostly one-woman shows. Sometimes she had guest performers. She would craft her own costumes and her own stage sets.

Later on she started to include another performer, who was not a performer by trade, the maintenance worker at Death Valley Junction – sort of became her co-star. He helped with the lighting and things and she would bring him up on stage for comic relief.

On the future of the Amargosa Opera House:

It’s just a really special place. You go into the hotel and the paintings are not just in the performance hall. Marta painted in some of the hotel rooms, in the lobby. You can see her mark everywhere.

One of the most striking paintings is of her as kind of a ghostly figure dancing in the colonnade there.

I hope they get another performer there to keep up Marta’s legacy. It would be a shame to have the majestic paintings that there and that sense of creative freedom vanish.

From KNPR's Along the Way: Day Trip From Las Vegas

Dave Clark, Las Vegas-based journalist

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.